Text of Irish Hunger Memorial, Attymass in Co. Mayo

One of the conditions stipulated by the Battery Park City Memorial Committee was that the memorial incorporate text. It was decided to have layers of mutable text wrap around the limestone plinth that the memorial stands on as well as on the passageway leading to the back of the cottage. The layers appear to be beyond touch as shadows upon the glass.

Designer Tolle has devised an ingeniously flexible method of mounting the texts so that they can be easily changed. "The text exists as ephemeral information," says Brian Tolle. The texts are silk-screened onto strips of clear Plexiglas that are simply leaned against the glass bands from the inside. When lighted, they appear to be etched, but they can be easily altered. It is designed to "relate to the living," as the silk-screened sentences inscripted on strips of resin provide a glowing contrast to the harsh exterior.

Behind the glass bands are some 110 quotations that represent different voices related to hunger: legislation, letters, memoirs, parliamentary reports, proverbs, recipes, songs and statistics. The quotations are at first about the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1851. "They are dying as numerous as bees on a harvest day" reads one line from an 1847 letter to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.

"Burying them in their own clothes, without a coffin or anything requisite for them to defray their funeral charges"

One of the texts from an 1847 letter by William Carelton seems to capture the memorial's chilling effect uncannily. "A brooding stillness, too, lay over all nature," he wrote "Cheerfulness had disappeared. Even the grass and hedges were silent, for the very birds had ceased to sing and the earth seemed as if it mourned for the approaching calamity, as well as for that which had already been felt."

In one line, the recipe for the soup ladled out in British-run soup kitchens (12½ pounds of beef to 100 gallons of water) is compared with the recipe used in the soup kitchens established for victims of the famine by American Quakers (75 pounds of beef to 100 gallons of water).

"Wilful waste makes woeful want," an Irish proverb reads another line from a total of two miles of text. One of the most harrowing of words is by John Costello of Galway, from 1847, describing his eviction: "He threw my three children out in the street" …

As the text continues outside on the limestone plinth the statements about the Irish famine are mixed with those about other famines in other regions in different times. China, Cambodia and Africa are all mentioned. "Every day, 25% of the food supply is wasted," reads one statement by President Clinton. On the opening of the memorial Malachy McCourt stood to read one of the lines of text from the plinth, and noted; "30,000 children will die today of starvation." Its creators also plan to record famines or hunger crises destined to occur in the future.

Piscatello Design Centre was chosen by Tolle and Battery Park City Authority to be the graphic design consultants. Graphic designer Rocco Piscatello was commissioned to help give structured and meaning to the story, collaborating with the memorial's artist, architect and historian. Says Piscatello, who founded the Piscatello Design Centre in 1997: "We helped them select an appropriate typeface, structure the vast amount of data into an understandable context and created a flexible design system for its implementation. Like the memorial's organic landscape, the text, too, is living and constantly keeping pace with the world at large."

At night, when it is lighted from inside, creating an eerie glow and it acts as a beacon to those travelling along the Hudson River. As well as the text there is also an interactive multi-media element of the memorial. In the passageway a short narrative plays in a continuous loop. It provides a brief, Irish-accented outline of the famine. It is short and gripping and it doesn't deal much in the way of the history.

This is what designer Brian Tolle's had to say about the text; You have text going around the floating base that upholds the landscape and this base also represents geology. Well, how is the text going to function? And how does it relate to geological strata?

Brian Tolle

Well, it's only very loosely based on the strata or the accumulation of geological history. That was the excuse so that it wouldn't become a place for blocks of didactic text. Whenever we think of Ireland we think of lyricism, Joyce's lyricism, and that kind of rhythm. It didn't seem appropriate for the text to be expressed in a block form that was definitive and authoritative. And so by creating these strata, we provided 8,000 linear feet of space for text. The text is inscribed in glass, sandwiched between the layers of stone. That amount of space allows for multiple interpretations, experiences, descriptions of the events as they unfolded, presented one next to the other, one on top of the other, one alongside the other in a way that attempts to express the extraordinary complexity of the events.

But you're not selecting the text?

Brian Tolle

The base is the space where many of these different constituent groups can come together. My role is to organise what is said, to present it - not to say it. Because there is no large space in which to inscribe a complete, narrative text, the result will be fragments of many histories, bumping up against one another. There is an executive committee and an Irish historian who will provide the text. I'm very interested in seeing what they choose.

Could you have eliminated the text altogether?

Brian Tolle

There was a requirement that there be a text. There needed to be a place for an inscription. One of my earliest criteria was to use landscape as contemplative space. So I created a place that's purely experiential; there's no text on the landscape surface of this memorial. It's all about place, it's a juxtaposition of places because you're also surrounded by all this glass and granite of Battery Park City. The base is lit, and at night this thing that seems rather imposing and solid by day actually fractures and radiates light by night. So the solidity of the foundation that supports this element is fractured, fissured.

You're making the text itself and its variety of voices the foundation of this landscape, as if memory were based on these various voices who are fighting and contesting over history, maintaining it in our minds and informing how we think about life today. This is a function of memorials in general.

Brian Tolle

This memorial has another purpose, as a touchstone for a much larger issue, which is world hunger. Whether it's a desert or an Irish landscape, land as subject is the point that we enter into the discussion. We've committed to the idea of allowing for this to be updateable; there's a sound system in the passage cut through the base of the memorial which leads to the landscape. It will not only allow for different voices to be heard - we're also talking about a people who lost their language; the British eradicated Gaelic - so it's an opportunity to hear that language spoken, as well as Irish music and storytelling. It's also updateable in the sense that we can talk about hunger as it appears in different places in the world. I would love for this to become a popular place, a place that provides information and a space for contemplation.

Juergen Riehm, speaking on behalf of himself and David Piscuskas, his partner at 1100 Architect, said, "Throughout our design process, we returned to the words and accounts of the Irish who lived through or died in the Great Hunger. They guided us to find the emotional balance of the scheme and we used them literally as an element in the design so that visitors could experience the connection we felt to those who died and those who left Ireland.

Much is said and written about the central role of sound - of voice, music and accent - in Irish culture. And we strove to bring some of that voice to the Memorial. From the testimonies of the victims, our attention was drawn to the deep, complex connection that exists between the Irish soil and the people who have lived on it. Literally lifting earth above the ground was a way to make the Memorial evoke that relationship, to show that the Irish earth is an essential part of the Irish soul, even for those who must leave it. Our goal is to have visitors experience these things in a profound and personal way."

Other Things You Might Like